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books catchup

I never write about books anymore. Only two posts in all of 2018 were tagged "Books", and only one of those was really a post about a book ("perhaps i need to go out tonight", about Heather Havrilesky's What If This Were Enough?) I read books all the time, I'm usually in the middle of one or more. Open right now: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister. Unopened right now, meaning I have them but haven't started them: a memoir by Jorma Kaukonen, a biography of Francis Marion, and Joan Didion's White Album, which I have read before.

But here are some of the ones I've read since Havrilesky's book, all of them deserving of a post of their own:

  • The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
  • Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins
  • I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff by Abbi Jacobson
  • Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
  • Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood by Karina Longworth
  • Just a Shot Away: Peace. Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont by Saul Austerlitz

Perhaps I need to write about these in the aftermath of the reading, where they are still fresh in my mind. Because right now, Traister's book is the only fresh one. In my mind.

So I'll write about it when I finish it. According to my Kindle, I'm 59% of my way through it.


dick miller

Dick Miller died yesterday at the age of 90. The IMDB lists 182 acting appearances for him ... that number seems low. I imagine he was a favorite of just about anyone who recognized him in one of those 182 films. Here is a two-part retrospective of Miller's work ... note that this was done 9 years ago, he made another dozen appearances after this!

In his honor, I watched Rock and Roll High School, one of my very favorite movies. Miller's part is short, but memorable. I don't think I've ever written about Rock and Roll High School. I ought to ... it's been my friend for 40 years. In the meantime, some Ramones-centric clips. First, one of the all-time greatest entrances in rock and roll movie history ... one of my favorite parts of the movie is that The Ramones are presented as the equal of The Beatles ... in the world of this movie, they rule.

The concert:

And "Do You Wanna Dance":

 


branded to kill (seijun suzuki, 1967)

Time for another in our ongoing series, Movies That Aren't for Me. Today, we'll look at Branded to Kill, a 60s Japanese yakuza movie that stomps all over the traditions of the genre.

Seijun Suzuki had made 39 films in the Japanese film production industry. He often wasn't happy with the projects he was given, most of which were B-movie genre pieces. He finally took to imprinting his films with his own personal touches. Each film would piss off the studio, Nikkatsu, they'd cut his budget a little more, instruct him to tone it down, he'd give them another Suzuki Special, they'd cut his budget some more, etc. Finally, for his 40th movie, Branded to Kill, the budget meant he was shooting in black-and-white. It was the straw that broke the studio's back ... he was fired. I'll let Wikipedia take over:

On 25 April 1968, Suzuki received a telephone call from a Nikkatsu secretary informing him that he would not be receiving his salary for that month. Two friends of Suzuki met with [studio head] Hori the next day and were informed that "Suzuki's films were incomprehensible, that they did not make any money and that Suzuki might as well give up his career as a director as he would not be making films for any other companies."

Suzuki sued, and 3 1/2 years later, won a settlement that included  a public apology from Kyusaku Hori for the negative things he said about Suzuki's movies. Suzuki was unable to direct another movie until ten years after Branded to Kill.

There is so much to admire about Suzuki, and I looked forward to watching Branded to Kill, the first Suzuki I have seen. And ... like Kyusaku Hori, I found it incomprehensible.

This was on purpose. Suzuki was rejecting the normal generic practices. It's impossible to figure out the plot, partly because it's not clear that Suzuki cares about it. There may be a method to his madness, but for me, the ongoing disruptions were random and meaningless. I didn't care about the characters, or the milieu, or whatever plot I could discern. There were diversions ... the hero is obsessed with smelling rice when it's boiling. And that hero is played by Joe Shishido, who earlier in his career had plastic surgery to make his cheeks bigger ... mostly he just looks odd.

So we have another movie where the director seems to have accomplished what they set out to do, which is rarer than it should be. That I didn't like it is irrelevant. It's a "Movie That Isn't for Me". The patron saint of these movies is Terrence Malick. #776 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


film fatales #50: rbg (julie cohen and betsy west, 2018)

I laughed often during RBG, which tells you something about how the film is constructed. Cohen and West allow the audience to be charmed by Ginsburg. This is not a warts-and-all production. The filmmakers avoid hagiography, but only barely.

It helps that they have such an interesting subject. Ginsburg's work as a lawyer arguing gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court are featured (she won five of six), and the time is taken to explain why these were important beyond the immediate moment. We also learn how Ginsburg is not the flaming liberal of her reputation. The film suggests that when she joined the Court, she was ideologically planted in the center. Over time, she has moved left relative to her colleagues, but she herself hasn't changed.

I'm currently reading Rebecca Traister's Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, and she argues that powerful women are more appreciated when they are in fact relatively powerless. About Ginsburg, she writes:

Ginsburg, whose fiery dissents have become the stuff of internet legend, and who has become known on the internet as the Notorious RBG, is in the minority of the Supreme Court. The pleasures of celebrating her toughness stem in part from her actual physical stature: she is a short, thin, octogenarian who has twice had cancer; the whole punch line of admiration for her is in part rooted in the improbability of her threat; she's like a little doll of female anger who we can all cheer for, even as she is outvoted again and again and again. It's extremely difficult to imagine the same kind of tattoo-inspiring admiration for her angry opinions if those opinions were actually reshaping the law.

But Ginsburg has said, "Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade." Persuasion is her speciality ... she has persuaded many people in her career to make the right decision, and did so without anger.

RBG the film, though, could use a little anger. We are shown things that would make us angry, but they are usually presented as obstacles Ginsburg helps us to overcome, so even the anger turns positive in the movie.

There are many highlights. The footage of her as a young woman reminds us that she wasn't always 80+ years old ... it's one thing to read that, to think that, but here a picture does indeed say a thousand words, and Ginsburg is a more real person to us when we see where she has come from. Her lifelong love affair with her husband is a joy. Her friendship with the ultra-conservative justice Antonin Scalia has never made sense, but seeing the two old friends interact here, that friendship makes perfect sense. Watching her workout is inspiring. And it's fun to see her accept her new celebrity. I laughed hardest when Cohen and West sat Ginsburg down in front of a TV and showed her Kate McKinnon's impression of her on SNL. She laughs throughout ... she thinks it's quite funny ... when asked if she thinks McKinnon is like her, though, she laughs again and says no.

I know more about Ginsburg than I did before I watched RBG. It was an enjoyable film. It could have been harder-hitting, but that's not the film Cohen and West wanted to make. As far as I can tell, they have succeeded in what they set out to accomplish. Nominated for two Oscars (one is for a Diane Warren song, so it doesn't count).

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


music friday: 50 years ago at Fillmore West

On January 25, 1969, Bill Graham put on a show at Fillmore West headlined by Iron Butterfly, with James Cotton and A.B. Skhy as openers.

Formerly the Carousel Ballroom, Graham turned it into Fillmore West in June of 1968. The chronology for Graham's San Francisco and New York Fillmores goes as follows:

Graham began promoting shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in December of 1965. His first show, a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, was headlined by Jefferson Airplane and The Great Society!.

In March of 1968, Graham opened Fillmore East in New York City. In July of 1968, he moved from the Fillmore to Fillmore West in San Francisco.

Graham closed Fillmore East in June of 1971 and Fillmore West a month later. Graham re-opened the original Fillmore in the mid-80s, but it became unusable after the earthquake of 1989. Graham died in 1991. Since then, the Fillmore was refurbished and re-opened yet again in 1994, where it still stands. There have also been Fillmores franchised to other cities.

My first trip to the Fillmore came during the Summer of Love in 1967, when I saw Chuck Berry, with Eric Burdon and the Animals and the Steve Miller Blues Band. Miller and his band accompanied Berry for his sets, which were later released as Live at the Fillmore Auditorium. I was also at one of the first set of shows at the new Fillmore West: Paul Butterfield, Ten Years After, and Fleetwood Mac. I think the last show I saw at the Fillmore was Wild Flag in 2012.

And so, to January 25, 1969. A.B. Skhy were a Milwaukee band that moved to San Francisco and opened several shows at the Fillmores. Their first of two albums was released in 1969 ... I"m guessing it hadn't come out in time for this show, but I could be wrong. This single barely inched its way into the top 100:

Cotton was a veteran blues man who had been around forever, even though he was only 33 at the time of this show. He worked with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. His biggest album on his own at the time of this show was probably Cut You Loose!, which was cut in San Francisco in 1968.

This was typical of Graham's shows in those days: 3 acts, a local one, a blues act, and a headliner that at times had no clear connection to the other two. Iron Butterfly, coming off of their huge, career-defining "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida", had just released their third album when this show took place. In 1970, they released a live album that had been recorded at some May 1969 shows, that probably works as an example for what they might have sounded like that night at Fillmore West a few months earlier.

 


throwback thursday: the 1993 royal rumble

The 1993 Royal Rumble took place 26 years ago today in Sacramento, and we were there. Fans of that era of rassling will feel a bit of nostalgia when I listed some of the performers in the matches before the Rumble: Doink the Clown, the Steiners, Shawn Michaels, Marty Jannetty, Bam Bam Bigelow, Big Boss Man, Bret Hart, Razor Ramon. (Three of those grapplers have since passed away ... rassling is a cruel sport.)

The Rumble that year wasn't particularly good, especially compared to the year before, when the legendary Ric Flair won after lasting more than an hour in the ring. Flair returned in '93, and he was the first contestant in the Rumble (he lasted less than 20 minutes). Again, some names from the Rumble, for nostalgia fans: Bob Backlund, Papa Shango, Mr. Perfect, Koko B. Ware, Irwin R. Schyster, Typhoon, Earthquake, Tito Santana, Owen Hart, and Randy Savage. The winner was Yokozuna. Five of those have also died, including Yokozuna. This was also the WWF debut of Giant Gonzalez (aka El Gigante), billed at 8 feet tall. He's dead now, too.

Here are highlight from the finish, with Yokozuna and Macho Man Randy Savage going at it while Yokozuna's manager Mr. Fuji encouraged his man. Yokozuna was billed as Japanese but was actually Samoan-American. Mr. Fuji (waving a Japanese flag during the match) was billed as Japanese, but was a Japanese-American from Hawaii. Fuji is dead now, too. The announcers are Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, also both dead now, although Heenan did live to be 72.

Finally, here is something I've only recently discovered, people who use the WWE video game to recreate matches:


counterpart

Counterpart is an interesting series on Starz that is a bit out of my comfort zone. I began watching it because it has Oscar winner J.K. "Schillinger" Simmons in a dual role. It's a hybrid, part espionage thriller, part sci-fi parallel worlds tale. It is admittedly quite ingenious, but a lot of it is over my head. I tend to get lost in the plots of espionage thrillers ... can't follow what's going on ... and the sci-fi angle doesn't help, since it expands the thriller in ways that exponentially increase my confusion level. At a basic level, I'm always wondering which of the parallel worlds we are in from one scene to the next. And Counterpart is not like my beloved Philip K. Dick stories, where the parallel worlds have a hallucinatory feel.

Well, Simmons and the rest of the cast (Olivia Williams, Sara Serraiocco, Stephen Rea, Lotte Verbeek, Jamie Bamber, Richard Schiff, Jacqueline Bisset, and many others) kept me interested through Season One. Interested, but confused. And I've stuck with it through about half of Season Two. The most recent episode, the 16th overall, was directed by series creator Justin Marks for the first time, so you know it was going to be a big deal. As if to emphasize the unique nature of this episode, J.K. Simmons is absent from everything except Previously On. The episode, "Twin Cities", takes us back to the beginning of the story, when the world split in two. By the end of the episode, I had a much clearer understanding of the basis for the show. I wish I'd seen it 16 episodes ago. Thus, I was mystified by a review from Robin Burks which appeared on Screen Rant.

As Burks noted, "This episode explained many of the mysteries that surrounded Counterpart in its first season with a focus on what happens next." But then Burks added, "Most shows would not give up their mysteries so early." Well, this was Episode 16, and it was the first time we were given any clue about what the hell is going on, so for me, at least, it was far from early.

The question is, will I find subsequent episodes more interesting, now that I've gotten the backstory? Ask me in four more episodes.

I should add that somewhere along the way, Starz has become quite the network for original series. Ash vs. Evil Dead, Outlander, Counterpart, Vida ... and those are just the ones I watch.

 


movies, 1969

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a set of columns on popular culture in 1969. Mick LaSalle got to examine movies from that year. He noted that the old Production Code was finally dumped in late 1968, and that studios that were losing money looked to younger filmmakers: "This combination, within the industry, of no censorship and a willingness to innovate would bring about a brief but important golden age." He then proceeded to look at a few of the best movies of 1969 ... "[W]hen you consider some of the best movies of 1969, the past doesn’t seem that far away at all."

The movies he mentioned were Anne of the Thousand Days, Army of Shadows, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Goodbye Columbus, Midnight Cowboy, Salesman, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and Topaz. It's an idiosyncratic list, as it should be. I've written about two of these on this blog.

Army of Shadows:

This tale of the French resistance is purposely low-key; you don’t come here for action-packed heroics. Instead, you get ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, making life-or-death decisions (in truth, mostly death in the short term), living under assumed names, their actions unknown even to their closest family. There is an inevitable feeling to the fates of these people. Knowing, as we do with hindsight, that the Nazis eventually lose, and that the Resistance helped expedite the Nazi failure, isn’t much good to the characters, who all know they are unlikely to see that victory. 

Salesman:

In my formative years as a film major in the early 70s ... I was a real believer in cinéma vérité, and I didn't spend much time questioning the "reality" of what was on the screen. More than 40 years later, I've seen a lot of cinéma vérité, and I no longer trust it in quite the same way. I'm more aware of the artist's manipulations than I was in my more naive years. If I had seen Salesman when I was 19, I would have loved it. Now, the "vérité" seems, not false exactly, but concocted. Its truths are the ones the filmmakers want to put forward, just like with every movie. And if I take away the aura of reality, Salesman is a documentary that takes a little too long to makes its points. The more reflective salesmen have insights into their own lives, but those insights feel casually slipped it, as if they weren't any more important than the other scenes in the movie. That's part of the trick, of course, to make it seem like the camera just happened to be there to record the men. And the artistry of the film is hidden behind the theory of its execution.

Of LaSalle's other choices, I've seen Butch Cassidy and Midnight Cowboy. I'm not a fan of either, and have a special dislike for Cassidy. I've also seen Easy Rider and liked it OK. That gives me four movies to check out.

What are my favorite 1969 movies? Thanks for asking. At the top are two that I listed in that long-ago Facebook Fave Fifty project.

The Sorrow and the Pity (#2 on that list):

The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.

Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.

The Wild Bunch (#8):

After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.

I think one problem with the recent Magnificent Seven remake is that it acted like The Wild Bunch had never been made.

Army of Shadows is my 3rd-favorite movie of 1969. Coming in at #4:

On Her Majesty's Secret Service:

The worst 007 (George Lazenby), combined with one of the handful of best Bond Girls (Diana Rigg), a Bond that is more human than usual, a love story that is touching without getting in the way, and some of the best actions scenes ever to appear in a Bond movie. If it wasn’t for Lazenby, this would be a contender for best James Bond movie of all time.

So, I'm now building a list of 1969 movies I should watch. Of course, like most "requests" (I'm acting like LaSalle requested that I watched the four of his choices I've missed), it may take me five years to get there. (Anyone reading this who wants to recommend a 1969 movie, that's what the comments section is for!). Meanwhile, here are some other movies from 1969 I have never seen:

Kes, Adalen 31, In the Year of the Pig, Model Shop, Medium Cool.

And, since it's Oscar season, here are some Oscar winners from that year I haven't seen:

Hello, Dolly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cactus Flower. I have to say those don't look all that great to me.

And finally, I'll add two of the top grossing films in the U.S. that I haven't seen, one which I would like to see, one which I wouldn't: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Paint Your Wagon.

 


where do we go from here

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are words that must be said.

-- Martin Luther King

I've posted this the last couple of Martin Luther King Jr. Days. I used to assign it to my students. It still hasn't lost its relevance.